Why Alcohol is the Best Solvent for Hemp Extraction


Why Alcohol Is The Best Solvent for Hemp Extraction

Healing with medicinal plants is as old as mankind itself. In essence, humans have been involved for thousands of years in an extensive ‘clinical trial’ with medicinal plants to learn how they help us heal, fight disease and infection, and improve overall well-being. In fact, archeological excavations dated as early as 60,000 years ago have discovered remains of medicinal plants including opium poppies, ephedra and cannabis. And, naturally with time, we have tremendously improved our understanding of each plant’s medicinal properties and how best to extract them. One solvent, however, has been particularly effective for centuries as an extraction method—specifically the extraction of hemp—to produce powerful plant medicine. This solvent is alcohol.

What Is a Solvent?

A solvent is a molecule that can dissolve or disperse other molecules, known as solutes, to form a mixture called a solution. Solvents are usually a liquid, but can also be found as a gaseous or solid state. Common examples of solvents include water, ethanol, methanol and acetone.

What Is Solvent Extraction?

Solvent extraction isolates chemical compounds based on their solubilities, or their abilities to be dissolved. A solvent’s molecules are able to pull apart the solute’s molecules that eventually become evenly distributed throughout the solvent. Think of it this way: When you make a cup of hot tea, water is the solvent and the tea particles are the solute, making tea the solution! Solvent extraction is used across industries, including during the processing of cosmetics, perfumes, petrochemicals, food products, pharmaceuticals, metals and—you guessed it—cannabis.

What Is Alcohol?

Alcohol, also called ethanol, ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, is a clear, colorless, flammable liquid which can be found as the principle ingredient in most alcoholic beverages including beer, wine and brandy. Alcohol is a natural byproduct of plant fermentation—a complex biochemical process during which yeasts convert sugars to alcohol. Because of its ability to easily dissolve in water and other organic compounds, alcohol is used as an ingredient in an array of products, ranging from cosmetic and beauty products to food additives, tinctures and fuel.

Why Alcohol Is The Best Solvent for Hemp Extraction

Alcohol, when used as a solvent, may be one of the oldest forms of botanical extractions and is one of several alchemical processes taken in spagyrics, an age-old extraction process. In fact, the term ‘spirits’ originates from the spagyric philosophy; that by soaking plants or herbs in high-proof alcohol solutions, the plant or herb will take on the properties or the spirit of the given plant or herb itself. Not only is alcohol a tried-and-true solvent for hemp extraction, but it is also very versatile and is widely used today to deliver several end-products.

The reason for its versatility is due to the fact that alcohol is both a polar and non-polar solvent, meaning it can dissolve both polar and non-polar substances. Basically, polarity of a solvent determines what type of compounds it is able to dissolve. As a rule of thumb, polar solvents dissolve polar compounds and non-polar solvents dissolve non-polar compounds.

The molecular makeup of ethanol is C2H5OH, indicating that ethanol contains two carbon (C) atoms, six hydrogen (H) atoms and one oxygen (O) atom. Ethanol’s polar hydroxyl [OH] group will dissolve hydrophilic (water-loving) compounds including chlorophyll, pigments and tannins. On the other hand, ethanol’s non-polar ethyl [C2H5] group effectively dissolves hydrophobic (water-fearing) components such as plant waxes, lipids, oils, cannabinoids, and terpenes. And, considering that hemp, as well as all other botanicals, contain both polar and non-polar compounds, alcohol as a solvent for hemp extraction is quintessential.

Not only can alcohol effectively dissolve each and every medicinal property found in hemp and other botanicals, but when altering the type of alcohol extraction method used, it can produce different outcomes. For example, using cold alcohol will limit the levels of undesirable compounds that end up in the solution, such as chlorophyll and waxes, while a warm alcohol extraction can provide a fuller plant profile. Ultimately, the versatility of alcohol makes it an ideal solvent for both small-scale cannabis connoisseur processors who may wish to maintain the full-spectrum of the hemp’s cannabinoid and terpene profile, and also for processors seeking to isolate specific cannabinoids such as THC or CBD.

When compared to other popular solvents used to extract cannabis, such as CO2 and hydrocarbons (propane and butane), alcohol is considered to be generally safer, easier and more cost effective. While alcohol can be highly flammable, it is less explosive and toxic, and therefore largely considered safer to operate than hydrocarbon extraction processes. When compared to CO2 extraction systems—which operate under high pressure, ultimately creating another potential hazard—equipment for alcohol extraction is exponentially less expensive and its throughput (how much biomass it can extract in a given time or batch) is substantially higher.

Final Thoughts

With a long history as a solvent for the extraction of botanicals, it is easy to understand why alcohol continues to be a superior solvent in not only the cannabis industry, but also in many other of today’s industries. In addition to the fact that alcohol is an established and effective solvent for the extraction of hemp, it is also versatile, safe, easy to operate with, and cost-effective. As a company who believes firmly in the efficacy of alternative plant medicine, Vera Herbals has adopted only the most superlative extraction processes to maintain the medicinal properties of any given herb. That is why we use a spagyric extraction process to create the majority of our herbal remedies. Alcohol may not always be the right answer, but when it comes to extracting hemp, it most certainly is.

Burton, Larry. “How does solvent extraction work?” Temarry, Temarry, 21 Nov. 2019, resource.temarry.com/blog/how-does-solvent-extraction-work.
“Cannabis workflows, part Ii: Solvents: Ethanol, king of classic.” Julabo.us, Julabo USA, Inc., 2021, julabo.us/cannabis-workflows-part-ii-solvents-ethanol-king-classic/.
“Ethanol uses, benefits, and chemical safety facts.” ChemicalSafetyFacts.org, ChemicalSafetyFacts.org, 25 May 2021, www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/ethanol/.
Prospiant. “5 reasons why ethanol is ideal for cannabis extraction.” Prospiant, 19 Apr. 2021, www.prospiant.com/ethanol-ideal-for-cannabis-extraction/.

 Written by

Kaitlyn Cranor